Feinstein’s Allegations about the CIA Should not Surprise Us: A Historical Perspective

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As the public dispute between CIA Director John Brennan and US Senator Dianne Feinstein continues, it is worth recalling a bit of history. Even a cursory review of the CIA’s past reveals that the Agency has acted outside the rule of law numerous times before and that it is willing to engage in extralegal activity to achieve its aims. In other words, when Feinstein declares that “[t]he interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detentions sites [post-9/11] were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us,” we should not be surprised. There’s little doubt the CIA’s interrogation methods—particularly waterboarding—amounted to torture, but this should not be viewed as breaking news. The CIA’s history of covert, illegal activity is too long to catalogue here, suffice it to say that Feinstein’s main allegation against the CIA—“that on two occasions CIA personnel electronically removed committee access to CIA documents after providing them to the committee”—appears far less extraordinary when placed in a historical context. Instead, it emerges as merely the latest link in a long chain of illegality.

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If the CIA of 2014 is being accused of removing documents from computers to inhibit a Congressional investigation, we would do well to remember that the CIA of 1953 carried out the overthrow of a democratically-elected government. Documents declassified last August demonstrate that the CIA has admitted to engineering the coup d’etat that toppled Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister at the time, Mohammad Mosaddeq. And the Agency didn’t stop there. Just one year later, in 1954, the democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala “was overthrown in a coup planned by the CIA.” In short, we should not be startled that an Agency that previously orchestrated coups would seek to inhibit an investigation into their interrogation and detention methods.

My Approved Portraits

In addition to their legally-questionable and anti-democratic activities abroad, the CIA has a checkered past here at home. A Congressional investigation into the Agency’s intelligence-gathering activities during the 1970s, to pick just one example, bluntly concluded: “[t]he record shows that the CIA has engaged in a variety of clandestine collection programs directed at the activities of Americans within the United States. Some of these activities have raised constitutional questions related to the rights of Americans to engage in political activity free from government surveillance” (emphasis mine). Before the NSA overtook them as the kingpins of surveillance, it seems, the CIA was a national leader in domestic spying. Should we really be surprised that such an Agency would seek to hinder the SSCI’s investigation into their post-9/11 methods? The CIA is the same agency that executed the targeted killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an action that was “extremely rare, if not unprecedented.” To be clear: we are talking about an Agency whose stock-in-trade is covert action with little transparency or accountability.

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And let’s not forget the CIA’s actions that form the core of the present controversy: its egregious post-9/11 methods of detention and interrogation. The NYT editorial board informs us “[t]he interrogations included a variety of brutal methods,” which Feintein herself has stated include: “beating a detainee in Afghanistan, who later died in custody, with a heavy flashlight; threatening a detainee with a handgun and a power drill; staging a mock execution; threatening to kill a detainee’s family; choking a detainee to the point of unconsciousness[.]” These activities should shock the conscience, but they shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. History shows us illegal activities are not rare or extraordinary for the CIA—quite the opposite, they are relatively common.

Instead of focusing on the details of the present scandal, we should really be asking ourselves how to bring meaningful, substantive reform to the CIA. It’s been observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and Feinstein’s current allegations are only the latest marker in a long history of unaccountability and chicanery at the CIA. The maintenance of a Constitutional democracy demands better.

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On Targeted Killing: The Establishment Media & Administration Officials are One and the Same

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Today’s editorial in the Chicago Tribune, which proclaims that the U.S. government’s targeted killing program “needs to keep flying,” is perhaps the worst editorial on the subject we have ever read. Since the editorial raises a number of arguments that are consistently raised by those who support “death by unreliable metadata,” to quote Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill’s memorable phrase to describe drone strikes, here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) we wanted to take the opportunity to debunk some of these baseless claims, many of which have been advocated by Administration officials as well.

In the context of the recent report from the Associated Press that President Obama is again weighing the decision whether to kill a U.S. citizen abroad, the Tribune declares: “we know [that] U.S. government officials have been debating since last summer whether to authorize a strike against the man. What’s taking so long? If he poses an imminent threat…” (emphasis ours). Clearly impatient that blood has not yet been drawn in the matter, the Tribune blindly accepts the Administration’s assertion that the man in question poses an “imminent threat.” But based on what evidence, and what definition of “imminent”? The AP article itself was based on statements from anonymous U.S. officials, who should not be viewed as having credibility on these matters as Dan Froomkin’s latest article in The Intercept shows us that “[t]he White House’s record of truth-telling when it comes to drone warfare is appalling.” One wonders what media organizations are doing, then, if they are content to repeat anonymous government claims without even the slightest attempt to square them with existing evidence.

Caught in the matrix of the Administration’s deceit and deception regarding the drone war, then, the Tribune appears happy to take the blue pill when it describes targeted killing as “extraordinarily effective” and “[o]ne of America’s most effective anti-terrorist programs” (emphasis ours). But that makes no sense, unless an “effective” anti-terrorist program is one that is designed to create more terrorists. As we know from Scott Shane and Jo Becker’s reporting in The New York Times, “[d]rones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants” (emphasis ours). Similarly, Glenn Greenwald has extensively documented how those engaged in attacks against the United States “emphatically all say the same thing: that they were motivated by the continuous, horrific violence brought by the US and its allies to the Muslim world[.]” Not to mention that civilians on the receiving end of a drone strike are often afflicted with terrible, constant psychological trauma and fear regardless of whether the drone strike is aimed at them or not. To proclaim that the targeted killing program is an effective anti-terrorist tool, as both the Tribune and Administration Officials have argued, is to engage in self-deception and a willful blindness to the facts on the ground.

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Second, the Tribune—again like the Obama Administration—treats the question of national sovereignty as somewhat of a joke, mocking Pakistan’s leaders who “have loudly denounced drone strikes as a violation of their country’s sovereignty.” Instead of offering a serious analysis on sovereignty, then, the Tribune prefers to gloss over the issue and implicitly assert that the United States government must exercise its innate authority to seek, surveil, and strike anyone in the world it deems an imminent threat. We’re not necessarily surprised by this cavalier attitude. After all, why would the Tribune want a serious discussion about sovereignty when the government itself doesn’t appear interested in that conversation?

Lastly, the Tribune argues that the U.S. should “wait until a new [Afghan] president is elected in April” in order to get the new Afghan President to sign the currently-stalled U.S.-Afghan security agreement. Readers interested in the U.S.-Afghan pact should review our previous article on the subject, but for the moment it is sufficient to note that the Tribune—and the Obama Administration—generally tend to ignore a critical provision when discussing the proposed agreement: that the U.S. demands immunity for U.S. troops as a condition of the agreement. In other words, given that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have been videotaped urinating on deceased Afghanis, have killed civilians in numerous instances, and have sent drone strikes to various Afghan villages, is it any wonder the Afghan government would hesitate to sign an agreement that affords U.S. soldiers immunity? How would the people of Afghanistan benefit from this? The short answer is as follows: the only ones who benefit from such an arrangement are the ones endowed with immunity.

In sum, today’s editorial in the Tribune offers a classic example of establishment media organizations publishing material that belongs more to public relations experts than serious journalists. Virtually all of the claims in the Tribune have been advanced by Administration officials at one point or another and all are demonstrably false or exaggerated. Here at the FEW, we believe in Judge Gurfein’s observation from the Pentagon Papers case that the press must fight to preserve “the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” The right of the people to know, however, is seriously and perhaps irreparably harmed when major media outlets are content writing articles and editorials packed with demonstrable lies. The public deserves better.

Government DoubleSpeak & the Permanent War Footing

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“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
—George Orwell, 1984

While the phrase “War on Terror” may have dropped from official parlance years ago, the term’s core feature—a violent conflict that knows no limits in terms of time or terrain—remains part and parcel of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we look at the media’s discussion of the current drone war and we’re left wondering whether the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yesterday we learned from The Intercept that NSA surveillance of electronic metadata provides the intelligence behind many drone strikes, and we also learned from the Associated Press that the Obama Administration is weighing whether to kill (another) U.S. citizen via drone strike abroad. Taken together, these reports suggest that the U.S. government’s “Assassination Program”—to borrow the phrase from Glenn Greenwald & Jeremy Scahill—has expanded beyond the realm of reason or rationality. Indeed, that the U.S. government even has such a program should shock and awe those who value national sovereignty, international law, human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and human dignity. If we are to have any hope of changing the tide of history, however, we must begin to wrestle with the reality that this war has no end. After all—how can we hope to confront what we have not yet understood?

When President Obama declared that “America must move off a permanent war footing” in his State of the Union (SOTU) address, he could only have been intentionally channeling Orwellian DoubleSpeak for that phrase to make sense. In its first of a three-part series on Obama’s counterterrorism practice of targeted killing, for example, The Washington Post (Post) details the “disposition matrix” that the Obama Administration employs to determine whether an individual in the matrix lives or dies. A critical aspect of the Post’s article emerges partway through: the targeted killing program transcends the boundaries of time. “Among senior Obama administration officials,” the Post reports, “there is a broad consensus that such [targeted killing] operations are likely to be extended at least another decade” (emphasis ours). That time frame—another decade—would drag the drone war into 2024. Some Administration officials apparently conceded 2024 may be closing the curtain too soon on targeted killings, noting there was “no clear end [in] sight” for the program, and that there are plans to “continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years” (emphasis ours). And despite presiding over the implementation and expansion of these very programs, President Obama speaks with a straight face about moving away from a permanent war footing. How can that be? Obama has also allowed the NSA to launch surveillance programs such as XKeyscore and PRISM that, like the targeted killing program, suggest the government is engaged in a conflict that is almost infinite in scope and duration.

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And don’t take our word for it. Obama’s SOTU—yes, the same speech where he spoke of moving off the war footing—itself presages a conflict on which the sun will never set. “While we’ve put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat,” Obama intoned, “the threat has evolved as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks” (emphasis ours). Numerous aspects of that sentence should immediately jump out to careful readers. Notice that while the President suggests the war is over with one hand (al-Qaida is on the “path to defeat”), with the other hand he informs us the war is not really over at all (it has grown to include “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali”). And look at the countries Obama mentioned. Mali? Do most Americans even know where that is? (Answer: West Africa). More critically, what are U.S. drones doing in Yemen and Somalia? We—and the public in general—have essentially no idea. Obama has refused to release most of the legal memos that outline his alleged authority to engage in targeted killing, and so despite having previously assured Americans “an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” we only get a glimpse into the drone war during the occasional news story such as when a U.S. drone strike converts a Yemeni wedding into a family funeral. Iraq is also mentioned as a site of extremist activity to “disrupt,” which is somewhat curious given that here is a video Obama declaring the war in Iraq is over—back in 2011. How can the war in Iraq have ended in any meaningful sense if, three years later, we are actively “working with our partners” to “disrupt and disable” extremist activity there and around the world? It seems that the way to get America off the war footing (at least in DoubleSpeak) is to kill more people. This is not hyperbole: Obama has launched eight times as many drone strikes as his predecessor and there’s no end in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel is (yet another) drone strike.

Media outlets must write candidly about a war that appears to have no end, otherwise the debates surrounding the tactics, strategy, and legality of the drone war will reverberate into an echo chamber where they will be heard only by the speakers themselves. In the interim, those running the drone war and targeted killing programs will likely continue their actions more-or-less unchanged. A good example of this phenomenon is exemplified in the AP article cited above regarding the latest U.S. citizen abroad the Obama Administration has set its sights on. The AP begins its piece noting the targeting of another American citizen “underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.” Read that sentence carefully. Why didn’t the AP say, for example, that the Obama Administration’s targeting of yet another U.S. citizen underscores a drone war gone out of control? Or that it underscores the increased acceptance of the (in our view, absurd) proposition that it’s OK to kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process? If, as The New York Times has reported, the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen abroad is “extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” then wouldn’t yet another targeting of a U.S. citizen just a few years later underscore something slightly more fundamental than “the complexities” of Obama’s “stricter targeting guidelines”? Various news outlets have already reported that Obama’s new guidelines are nothing but Orwellian “pure wind,” devoid of any real substance and designed to make murder respectable. To make matters worse, the AP article itself quotes Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah for the proposition that “[s]o little has changed since last year[.]”

The evidence suggests Shah stands correct, not just for last year but for many more before that. If and until journalists understand that the U.S. government is firmly implanted on a permanent war footing—in other words, understand that Obama’s SOTU was primarily delivered in DoubleSpeak—we will continue to witness the expansion of a drone war that has no end. And if that turns out to be the case, we will find ourselves in the company of the protagonist of 1984, for as we know, “Winston could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war…”

Going for Gold: Journalism & the Sochi Olympics

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Part of the reason the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW) exists is to keep establishment media organizations in check, as they have historically failed to do that themselves. And when it comes to the Sochi Olympics, many journalists appear intent on outperforming each other as they go for gold in what seems to be the main event: critiquing the Russian government at the expense of virtually all else. While we are certainly not here to defend the Russian government or its laws, we are here to keep an eye on the media. The Sochi Olympics coverage, however, suggests the flame of consistent and equitable reporting has been nearly extinguished.

Much of the Olympic coverage so far, for example, has been dominated by journalists who appear borderline-obsessed with addressing the question of LGBTQ rights in Russia, condemning Russia at virtually every turn. While the question of LGBTQ rights is undoubtedly an important one, we question why media organizations suddenly appear intent on focusing on human rights issues now that Russia is hosting the Olympics. We do not recall similar treatment of the U.S. government the last time it hosted an international sporting event. Can you recall the mainstream media ever criticizing the U.S. government for human rights abuses during the Olympics? We can’t. Although the Obama Administration has launched a record number of drone strikes (eight times more than his predecessor) and the U.S. previously engaged in the practice of “extraordinary rendition”—kidnapping someone from country X and then sending them to country Y for “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture)—we cannot recall a single instance of the media mentioning those human rights issues during international sporting events. Yet the impression one gets from media reports is that LGBTQ issues in Russia are (a) relevant to the Olympics and/or (b) the most important human rights issue of our time.

Again, there’s no question that LGBTQ rights are important and that the FEW believes all individuals should be treated equally and equitably. But instead of focusing on the status of various Russian laws that have little to do with the Olympics, we’d rather ask why media organizations have penned so many articles on human right violations committed by other governments but comparatively few articles for those those committed by their own. If media organizations are to be cantankerous and obstinate, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case, why do they maintain relative silence when it comes to the alleged human rights violations of the U.S. government? In the lead-up to these Olympics, not a day went by without a new story about LGBTQ rights in Russia. The establishment media organizations have never done such consistent reporting on alleged human rights violations when the United States hosts an international sporting event. The stark contrast in reporting strikes us as both hypocritical and unhelpful.

The hypocrisy is evident in articles like this from The Verge, entitled “Hackers aren’t the Problem at Sochi, Surveillance is.” Right—surveillance is a problem in Sochi. Russell Brandom says in his article that what’s happening in Sochi is “one of the most intensive short-term campaigns of digital surveillance the 21st century has ever seen.” Again, we’re not here to defend Russian practices by any means, but The Verge appears to be writing about an alternate reality. The National Security Agency (NSA) has instituted surveillance programs for those who play Angry Birds and World of Warcraft, not to mention surveillance programs like XKeyscore and PRISM that, by design, are aimed to collect “virtually everything a user does on the internet.” In short, the notion that Russia—not the NSA—is engaged in “one of the most intensive” surveillance operations is nonsensical in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

Media coverage of the Sochi Olympics has also been unhelpful. First, by focusing on the LGBTQ issue in Russia during these Olympics but downplaying U.S. human rights issues (Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, extraordinary rendition, mass surveillance, etc.) during other sporting events, media organizations implicitly suggest that the latter issues are unimportant. At the very least, their reporting conveys to the reader that LGBTQ issues in Russia are far more important than any of the other issues mentioned above. Second, the media’s reporting is unhelpful to those who are actually participating in the Olympics: the athletes themselves. Although they have trained for years and are regarded as the best in their field, the media has so far preferred to focus on unrelated political issues in Russia. The athletes—and the victims of U.S. human rights abuses worldwide—deserve better.

On NSA Reform & The Media: Have we Learned Nothing?

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“POLITICS, noun—a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

We’ve long since lost confidence in how major media outlets report on national security / surveillance matters, and their take on yesterday’s hearings in Washington only entrenches that belief. After all, what’s the purpose of “journalism” if media outlets are content merely reporting the facts (i.e., describing them) instead of analyzing them? Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we prefer journalism that’s in line with Judge Gurfein’s observation in the Pentagon Papers case: “[a] cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority” (emphasis ours). Notice Judge Gurfein’s phraseology that the work of the press “must be suffered” by authority figures suggests that true journalism must be both tenacious and aggressive.

The majority of reporting on yesterday’s surveillance-related hearings fails on both counts. Take The Washington Post (WP), whose article on the hearings ran with the headline “Snowden’s Leaks: Are journalists ‘fencing stolen material’?” While the WP spent fifteen paragraphs exploring the question, they never bothered to present the obvious answer: no. The facts here should not be misunderstood—the answer to the WP’s question is a simple “no” because there is no evidence whatsoever that Glenn Greenwald or any of the other journalists reporting on the Snowden documents has ever sold anything to anyone. As Greenwald himself has stated: “I have never, ever sold a document[.]” That Greenwald has never sold an NSA document didn’t stop major media outlets from writing page upon page exploring the hypothetical situation of whether selling such a document would be a crime.

In other words, rather than explore whether everything Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and others said at yesterday’s hearing was based in fiction or fact, many media organizations quoted the officials at length, implicitly suggesting that what they said either makes sense or should be taken seriously. But we know neither is true. Take a look at this quote from Rogers, reprinted by The New York Times in its article on the hearings: “If I’m hawking stolen, classified material that I’m not legally in possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?” Almost every word of the sentence is inaccurate, yet readers of the NYT wouldn’t know it. First, Rogers’ hypothetical is nonsensical because (as noted above) there is no evidence that anyone has hawked confidential material. Rather, Greenwald has had a clear history of partnering with—not selling or hawking to—other media outlets in reporting on the Snowden documents, including Globo in Brazil and Der Spiegel in Germany. The second part of Rogers’ hypothetical—selling the materials “for personal gain and profit”—also emerges more from Rogers’ vivid imagination than concrete fact. While Greenwald’s prominence and stature have no doubt increased as a result of his work on the Snowden documents, there’s again no evidence to suggest he pursued this story for personal profit. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate he’s working on these stories because he believes them to be in the public interest.

Regardless of whether media outlets believe their work to be better “after Snowden” than before, their reporting continues to leave much to be desire on these issues. We’ve previously documented how many politicians in Washington have essentially no credibility when it comes to speaking sensibly or truthfully about NSA surveillance or reform, yet the major media outlets continue to report on these events as if they do. Our question is a basic one: why?

Journalists on Twitter and elsewhere repeatedly declared that yesterday’s hearing demonstrated the Obama Administration’s desire to “criminalize” journalism, to quote Greenwald. Hearing that disheartens us somewhat, because these journalists should know better than anyone that this Administration already has taken significant, concrete steps in the attempt to criminalize journalism. Did we already forget the time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) obtained two months worth of telephone records from the Associated Press without their knowledge? At the time—and this was less than a year ago, keep in mind—AP President & CEO Gary Pruitt said “The DOJ’s actions could not have been more tailor-made to comfort authoritarian regimes that want to suppress their own news media,” (emphasis ours). Can it be we no longer recall that the DOJ suggested FOX News reporter James Rosen was a “co-conspirator” as part of his reporting? We remember those things, and we’re here to ensure you do too. Indeed, the mainstream discussion around NSA surveillance reminds us of the poem Ozymandias from Percy Bysshe Shelley—media outlets are focusing on NSA reform with bated breath without realizing there’s no reason to believe there’s any substance behind the Administration’s promises of reform. Promise of NSA reform is like the statue in Shelley’s poem—there’s nothing really there. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” Shelley tells us, “The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Fourth Estate Watch – An Introduction to Aggressive, Adversarial Journalism

Hello and welcome to the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW). Here at FEW, we monitor how mainstream media organizations conduct their reporting and we offer our analysis when that reporting fails to live up to the standards of a cantankerous and obstinate press, to paraphrase Judge Gurfein’s observation from the Pentagon Papers case (see the “About Us” section). In short, we aim to demonstrate how aggressive, adversarial journalism benefits and informs the public to a much greater degree than the reporting currently done by mainstream media outlets.

Our inaugural post reviews David Remnick’s recent profile of President Obama. We believe Mr. Remnick’s piece is not worth your time, in large part because Mr. Remnick allows Obama to make a series of misleading or deceptive claims without aggressive follow-up or clarification to the reader. Obama’s word, left unchecked, is presented to the reader as factually accurate even when it is not. What is the point of journalism if an official’s words are simply repeated verbatim, without meaningful challenge when merited? We believe that type of writing should be left to public relations experts and not journalists. Below is a detailed look at some of the flaws in Remnick’s article.

  • Many of the article’s flaws deal with national security issues, as Mr. Remnick essentially allows Obama to say whatever he wants on the subject, unchallenged. Regarding recent disclosures from Edward Snowden, Remnick quotes Obama as saying: “Is the only way to do that by giving some twenty-nine-year-old free rein to basically dump a mountain of information, much of which is definitely legal, definitely necessary for national security, and should properly be classified?” (emphasis ours). This is factually incorrect on its face, but Remnick lets it stand. There is literally zero evidence that Snowden “dump[ed] a mountain of information” anywhere—instead, all of the evidence indicates Snowden gave the information to a handful of journalists (and, even among them, it is believed only Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras have the full set of documents) and those journalists have since released the documents in an extremely selective manner (after careful editing and review). Indeed, The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger has previously said they have only published one percent of the documents they have. Obama himself previously lamented Snowden’s revelations were emerging in “dribs and drabs.” We believe, then, that Remnick should have explored Obama’s misleading statement further. Which is it, Mr. President: are the revelations coming out in “dribs and drabs” with barely 1% released, or is it a “mountain of information” just “dumped” online? Logically, it cannot be both a mountain dumped and a drip-drip-drip release. The fact that Obama has asserted both simultaneously is unsettling. Remnick should have pressed Obama on this inconsistency and demanded clarification. On another point, Remnick lets Obama’s assertion that the programs are “definitely legal, definitely necessary” stand, even if at least one Federal judge has suggested the programs are unconstitutional and an independent review board indicated that “We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation” (emphasis ours). So, despite serious doubt existing as to both the efficacy and legality of the NSA’s programs, Remnick lets Obama say that these programs are “definitely legal, definitely necessary” without so much as a word of challenge thrown in. The reader is left with the impression that Obama is correct when that is far from the truth.

  • Elsewhere on the Snowden revelations, Remnick writes: “Then Obama insisted that what Snowden did was ‘not akin to Watergate or some scandal in which there were coverups involved.’ The leaks, he said, had ‘put people at risk’ but revealed nothing illegal.” As perhaps expected, Remnick passively accepts Obama’s characterization that Snowden’s disclosures have “put people at risk.” Was the President asked for concrete evidence to back up his assertion? Could he even point to one instance in which someone’s life was put at risk as a direct result of the revelations? Were these questions even asked? The reader has no idea, because in Mr. Remnick’s view of journalism, simply quoting Obama’s naked assertion is sufficient.

  • Similarly, Remnick writes: “In Obama’s view, ‘the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it.’” Did Remnick ask Obama to elaborate on what the other way was? Did he ask, in detail, how Snowden’s “another way” could have worked? Again, we will never know if these questions were even asked, since Remnick decided Obama’s assertion that “another way” was possible was sufficient to confirm that another way was indeed possible (i.e., treating the President’s claim as fact).

  • Then there’s the recent disclosures regarding the NSA’s surveillance activity in Germany (in theory a nation with whom the US has friendly relations), in which Remnick writes: “Obama enjoyed a good relationship with Angela Merkel, but he admitted that it was undermined by reports alleging that the U.S. tapped her cell phone.” (emphasis ours). In Mr. Remnick’s view, then, Obama’s relationship with Merkel was undermined by reports of the surveillance and not the surveillance itself. Did Mr. Remnick ask Obama if he felt the relationship deteriorated, instead, because of reports that Merkel’s phone had been under surveillance for perhaps ten years? Was Merkel upset about the reporting or the surveillance? In Remnick’s view of things, apparently the reporting was what caused the relationship between the two leaders to fall apart—not the decade of surveillance of a head of state of a friendly, democratic nation.

  • Moving from NSA surveillance to targeted drone strikes, Remnick’s piece continues to fail the reader. Remnick allows Obama to say, unchallenged: “What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions.” How do we know if any of that is true? Mr. Remnick doesn’t seem curious, since he allows Obama to say it without asking for him to explain. In its famous article on Obama’s “Kill List,” The New York Times previously wrote that “[Obama’s] actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules[.]” So if Obama’s actions on drone strikes have “often remained inscrutable,” how can we possibly know whether it is true that Obama has “tighten[ed] the process so much”? Many of the legal memos outlining the President’s alleged authority to carry out these strikes remain classified and unreleased. What we do know is that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism writes that Obama has launched “eight times as many” drone strikes as George W. Bush, resulting in approximately 2,400 deaths (at least 273 of which are civilians). Did Remnick ask Obama whether these statistics reflect a tightening of the process of a limiting of risk to civilians?

  • Also, the NYT piece on the “Kill List” says “…Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” (emphasis ours). Did Remnick ask Obama whether his unique way of defining “militant” (all military-age males in a strike zone) was part of “limiting” civilian casualties? Why wasn’t this issue pressed? Later on in the piece, Remnick allows Obama to say (again unchallenged) that a principle he cares deeply about is ensuring that everyone is “being treated with dignity or respect regardless of what they look like or what their last name is or who they love…” Did Remnick ask Obama whether the civilian casualities of drone strikes are “being treated with dignity or respect”? Is it dignifying or respectful to define ‘militant’ as all military-age males in a strike zone? (Let’s not forget a recent drone strike in Yemen recently killed many members of a wedding party). We will never know since Remnick never asked these questions.

While there are many flaws with Remnick’s profile of Obama, the FEW believes the most egregious of those relate to national security and surveillance, as outlined in some detail above. Rather than uphold the standard of a cantankerous and obstinate press in these matters, Remnick instead evidently preferred to allow the President a platform to make a series of misleading and inaccurate claims on these matters without challenge. In a sense, we are not surprised, since we seriously doubt the President would have offered Remnick the access he was allowed to report the article if aggressive questions from Remnick were forthcoming. More likely, instead, was that the President knew Remnick would not challenge him on these matters, which is perhaps why he was offered such access in the first place.